Realm Lovejoy’s journey to becoming an award winning game developer began when she was twelve years old. Along with her brother, she discovered a video game called Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo. “It blew my mind,” she says, “because it was the first time that I could explore on my own and make my own decisions inside a story frame. I thought there was a lot of potential there.” By the time she was a senior in high school, the former Yelm, Washington resident had decided to pursue a career in video games, despite the fact that she had no idea where to gain the necessary skills and experience.
Within days of her decision, Claude Comair bought a guitar from her stepfather Mark. Comair happened to be the founder of DigiPen Institute of Technology, a school in nearby Seattle where artists and computer scientists honed their abilities prior to entering the demanding – and relatively new – world of game development. “It was one of those random life-changing moments,” says Lovejoy, “and I knew that was the school I was going to go to.”
The education at DigiPen was rigorous and varied. Although Lovejoy was already adept at two-dimensional art, she had no three-dimensional experience, an ability she gained through drawing sometimes up to sixty hours a week. DigiPen trains students in everything from 2D art, traditional life drawing, and anatomy to 3D modeling, texturing, rigging (putting bones inside a 3D mesh so you can move it, similar to puppet strings), animating, and working on video games by teaming up with programmers. They also did exercises in dialogue and story writing. “It was a very well rounded educational system which was appropriate for how the video game industry works,” says Lovejoy.
For their senior project, Lovejoy’s team developed a game they called “Narbacular Drop.” Scouts from industry giant Valve attended their presentation, and in an unprecedented move, hired the entire team. “It’s very unusual,” says Lovejoy. “We were all pretty shocked.” The project later became the award-winning game Portal, named Game of the Year at the 2007 Game Developers Conference.
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Since graduation, Lovejoy has continued to work with her team, now employed at Valve. She explained the typical process for developing a game. First, designers come up with a goal and a specific game-play mechanic to work on. Then they set up constraints, such as what kind of art style would best serve. Next, they prototype a rough version with no final art work in it and have as many people as possible play through it. “You watch and take notes and see what needs improvement,” says Lovejoy. “The game play will keep getting sharper and the levels more organized as it teaches the player what you’re trying to show them. That’s always our primary focus. We watch once a week.”
She emphasizes the importance of two main aspects of game design: flexibility and teamwork. “It’s not rigid in a way that everyone has their roles. You have to just do what is needed to forward the product,” she explains. “There’s a lot of sides to an artist in video games. Some people are more adept at 2D so they do a lot of concepting, illustrating, painting over a screen shot to get ideas of how they can make the environment better for the game. Some focus more on 3D, so they do the modeling, figuring out mechanics or more technical things like rigging.”
The ability to accept feedback is also crucial. “Making video games is a really humbling experience,” she says. “You get a lot of constructive criticism and you have to kind of develop a thick skin and learn that it’s just part of growth and not let it get you down. The more you do, you realize it’s about teamwork; it’s not really about you. Everyone’s goal is just the finished product.”
Working in such a fast-paced industry can be a challenge, but Lovejoy thrives on it. “It’s exciting because things are changing so fast all the time. Being with a team, getting feedback and growing together with the industry is pretty exciting.” She also appreciates the unique problems that designing presents. “You have to do art to help a player understand the game. It makes you think from a high level standpoint compared to just doing a solo project,” she says.
In addition to her work for Valve, Lovejoy has completed writing and drawing an illustrated young adult novel, a science fiction story involving three clones who share the same body. “They have nothing else in common,” she explains.”It’s about their adventure in this whole clone society. I wanted to expand myself as a storyteller and artist.” She’s still shopping for a publisher. In the meantime, she’s living her unlikely dream of a career in a field that didn’t even exist until the late twentieth century.